(Rod Willis then: on the road, on the make, on the piss.)
THERE’S A TRUCKLOAD OF STORIES to tell in the Rod Willis repertoire, now a memoir called Ringside. More than seems possible in one life.
You’ve got the rollicking boys’ own adventure which takes up the opening quarter of his book, as he grows up on the surf coast of northern Sydney post-war, hits the hippie trail with a head full of zombie and winds up working both sides of the Atlantic as crew for bands small, big and getting bigger in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They oughtta make a movie of it, maybe calling it Nearby Famous. It would definitely come with a strong parental advisory.
And it’s a book rich in the mix of business, quasi-parenting, wild cat rustling and music insider bullshitting involved in 32 years of managing Cold Chisel from (not long after) go to whoa to go again, which forms the centrepiece.
The combustible singer and drummer contrasted by the solid-as bassplayer and off-with-the-pixies guitarist, and its dry-as-dust leader and principal songwriter. The alcohol-scented sweat and pressed-bodies excitement of a group marching through the country like a conquering army being welcomed as saviours. The coke-fuelled, big swinging dick energy of promoters/agents/managers – many of them called Michael – and the synergies of macho culture in pubs, clubs, radio and politics they enjoyed.
It feels like ancient history and almost yesterday at the same time.
You can read about those parts of the book in plenty of places now as Willis does the rounds, but something that almost slides by towards the end of Ringside, covered relatively briefly – certainly far less than his teenage travels or the load-ins and bumping outs of gigs in anonymous US towns – is a personal revelation and exploration. Not just personally devastating but long lasting, carrying a connection with a similar revelation in Jimmy Barnes’ book of a damaged childhood pre-Chisel.
And it starts with Willis’ separation from his wife, the splitting of an already patched together but deeply loved family, and his recognition that “I had unresolved issues from my childhood that I felt played a role in my current situation”. As he writes, “I knew I needed to deal with these issues but didn’t have a clue where to start.”
The more we read and the more we hear about people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and into the 1970s – not only people subsequently involved in the arts and creative industries, but after a while you begin to suspect, maybe quite frequently those people – the more we understand how silence and denial turned the trauma into a foundational element in adult behaviour and especially adult dysfunction.
There were things you never said in families, and certainly not outside the family. You just got on with things, right? And if you had serious difficulty in relationships with your partner or your children or authority, if you obliterated the past and present with alcohol or drugs or sex, if your self-esteem turned out to be as fragile as fine glass dropped from a table, well that thing in the past had nothing to do with it, right?
As Willis says in the book “I was aware that I had either ignored or repressed childhood traumas, figuring that they had little or no bearing on my adult life.”
How did Willis go from someone who didn’t talk about things, ever, to someone who dealt with it and then put it out publicly? “I thought it was my responsibility,” he says plainly.
(Rod Willis today. Photo by Robert Hambling)
“I remember once – here’s me, big boofy bloke, surfer, known for not backing down from a fight, and I was a rugby player – talking to some mates, well before the book, and I just came out and told them,” says Willis. “You could see the look on their faces. And then I forwarded a statistic that one in nine, I think, suffer molestation or whatever you want to call it, and I thought most of the people in this room think ‘oh it’s happened to somebody else, somebody I don’t know. Or it happened to that guy over there, some wimpy guy, and I can why it happened to him’.
“Then I started realising how that was impacting on my life. Going back a bit, going to England was on one hand, definitely that music Mecca, that whole thing about reading the New Musical Express at Wynyard Station going ‘oh God’, even though it was two weeks old, ‘there’s John Mayall playing’. But my sister actually said to me, have you thought about how one of the reasons why you went was because you needed to get away from what was going on? That whole secrecy, always being aware that at any time somebody was going to see what was really going on behind those four walls. And I think she is probably right, that probably did play on my mind.”
As he points out, he was 18 when he left Australia, running hard. A time when phone calls home were too expensive to contemplate and letters were sent on those flimsy “old aerogram, like toilet paper you’d write on”, so the old life could be sectioned off, put away. And so it was for another 30-40 years. Until it refused to stay hidden away and silent.
“When I realised that I can’t go on in my private life being scared of having relationships – I’d already gone through one – I tried a whole range of things and nothing seemed to work. No one was ever able to explain the obvious, that whatever you call it in the room. Going to that psychiatrist and she explained within five minutes. The minute she said you are hiding something …” his voice cracks, he looks away and takes a few deep breaths. “Even now it gets to me, how you deal with it. All these years - I’m 75 years of age.
“Is it easier to deal with? No it’s not easy to deal with. Because even though you think you’ve dealt with it, you never really deal with it; it’s a constant exercise that you have to adopt.”
Willis takes a bit of time to compose himself. There’s no rush, I tell him.
“I don’t normally get emotional about this but when I get asked these sort of questions it brings it all back and what I have to do is then go to what I was taught: it wasn’t your fault. That kind of thing.
“The reason I put it in [the book] was for that reason: I thought it was important to show that vulnerability. It is not always that big, boofy guy who fought this or did that. All these sort of things need to be exposed, out there. It is reality.”
And along the way showing us why Willis made some of the decisions, some of the wrong decisions or harmful ones, that he details in the book. Without that we could just as easily dismiss him as another self-centred man who wouldn’t commit but lived selfishly, even if theoretically successfully, in an industry that rewards never growing up. Or we could just as easily think of him as some “other”, rather than all too typical.
I tell Willis that while not having had the same abusive experience as his in any way, there were sufficient issues for me relatively late in life to see a professional who similarly, within minutes, identified what and who she called the core of the problem. When I said to her that I had always and still now refused to blame this individual, seeing my decisions and my actions as my own, she said it didn’t matter who I blame, this situation was a fact and needed to be dealt with.
“Those are the words [his psychologist] used to me: it’s a fact,” says Willis. “I know you and I can say there are probably 20 people we’ve had this conversation with and they’ve thrown the wall up, ‘no I don’t need any treatment, I don’t need to speak to anybody’, but you know by being around them and how they act, you can see it.
“It’s a decision you have to make yourself, and it’s not a sign of weakness. Most of the time you don’t have any control over it.”
And it can tell a whole life’s path.
“I had two siblings so I felt that I had to protect them, and that’s the thing. Maybe that’s the whole thing about becoming a manager you know, you become the big brother, you become the dad,” he says. “I love my dad and whatever, but my dad knew nothing about what was going on and I can’t blame him. I was angry about him that he didn’t protect me as such, but instead of saying that to him I didn’t want to upset the apple cart. All I wanted to make sure was that I protected my brother and sister. I threw myself in front of the bus.”
“Take a whole life's loneliness/Wrap it up in some tenderness/Send it off to some emptiness/With all my love.”
Rod Willis – Ringside is out now from Allen & Unwin.